Flights of fancy The Royal Chi­cano Air Force


Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Michael Abatemarco

IN the 1997 film Lost High­way, the char­ac­ter Fred Madi­son, played by Bill Pull­man, says, “I like to re­mem­ber things my own way.” When asked what he means by that, he replies, “The way I re­mem­ber things. Not nec­es­sar­ily the way they hap­pened.” That is not to say that Madi­son lies when he talks about his mem­ory of events, but rather that his mind has trans­formed his rec­ol­lec­tions into a dif­fer­ent kind of truth. In the arts and sci­ences, nar­ra­tives guide re­search — but far too of­ten, those sto­ries come from a lim­ited per­spec­tive and are twisted to con­form to pre­con­ceived ideas. Truth is what Stephanie Sauer, in her guise as the ar­chiv­ist char­ac­ter La Stef, is both seek­ing and sub­vert­ing in The Ac­ci­den­tal Archives of the Royal Chi­cano Air Force, the record of a rebel art col­lec­tive that is at once full of truths and half-truths, ev­i­dence and facts, myths, ex­ag­ger­a­tions, and maybe even a few whop­pers. But, as in the words of Chief Brom­den in Ken Ke­sey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s

Nest, “It’s the truth, even if it didn’t hap­pen.”

In the book, pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Texas Press, Sauer’s La Stef hints at the po­etic li­cense that in­fuses much of the tome in her “Ar­chiv­ist’s Note.” There, we learn that La Stef’s role as lead ar­chiv­ist on the pro­ject doc­u­ment­ing the Royal Chi­cano Air Force be­gan sev­eral life­times ago. “We did not have writ­ing, but I was born with mem­ory then,” she writes. “I was born with see­ing.” In her present in­car­na­tion, she has de­voted her­self to cre­at­ing “en­tire li­braries of proof.”

But what is The Royal Chi­cano Air Force? First, it should be noted, it is a real thing — an in­flu­en­tial art col­lec­tive founded in Cal­i­for­nia in 1970 by artist and poet José Montoya and artist and mu­ral­ist Es­te­ban Villa, and guided by the mantra “La locura lo cura” (Crazi­ness is its own cure). Orig­i­nally called The Rebel Chi­cano Art Front, the RCAF changed its name when the acro­nym was con­fused with that of The Royal Cana­dian Air Force. But don’t let the truth fool you. A post­card re­pro­duced in the book shows a Chi­cano pilot wav­ing from a cock­pit along with the quote, “We’re for real. We have planes and we have pi­lots,” and signed “Es­te­ban Villa, Gen­eral, RCAF.” The im­age is cited as “Fig. 2. Ev­i­dence bag #1: RCAF post­card feat.” Sauer en­livens what is ul­ti­mately a rather se­ri­ous ex­er­cise (more on that later) with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. How­ever, the task of the reader is not so much to sep­a­rate the truth from the rest but to syn­the­size it all into a co­he­sive nar­ra­tive. Yes, the story is full of holes, and La Stef, in that age-old habit we have of im­pos­ing or­der on chaos and pat­terns on na­ture, fills the holes with mar­velous in­ven­tion. But we do the same ev­ery time we, as in­di­vid­u­als, tell our own sto­ries, and they are no less bereft of mean­ing for that.

Iron­i­cally, it was the very prob­lem the au­thor faced as doc­u­menter of the RCAF’s his­tory — the task of in­ter­pret­ing the ev­i­dence — that led her, af­ter a year’s worth of writ­ing, to take a new tack. “Back in the early 2000s, I was tasked to write a his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive for La Raza Galería Posada, one of the old­est Chi­cano-in­dige­nous cen­tros in the U.S. and founded by mem­bers of the RCAF,” Sauer told Pasatiempo .“I was work­ing as an ar­chiv­ist and oral his­to­rian for that or­ga­ni­za­tion at the time. So al­to­gether, I spent many years try­ing to chase af­ter the facts and fit them into the ex­ist­ing struc­tures of the ar­chive and the doc­u­men­tary.” Sauer was en­gaged at La Raza with record­ing the mem­o­ries of the RCAF for pos­ter­ity. La Stef de­vel­oped as a sort of al­ter ego for the au­thor, one who em­bod­ied the en­ergy and spirit of her sub­ject, but also an iden­tity with her own dis­tinct per­cep­tions, sep­a­rate from that of the au­thor.

“La Stef’s char­ac­ter emerged af­ter I threw out that first year of writ­ing, but stemmed from an as­pect of my­self I en­coun­tered as an ar­chiv­ist and oral his­to­rian,” Sauer said. “Once I had car­ried that first man­u­script as far as I could take it, I was able to see the parts of the nar­ra­tive voice that were so prob­lem­atic and that, frankly, bored me. So I un­zipped that outer layer of my iden­tity — the ar­chiv­ist, oral his­to­rian, the other — and filled the empty skin with that po­tent RCAF locura. La Stef then be­came her own en­tity: equal parts prob­lem and pos­si­ble so­lu­tion. She em­bod­ies the per­ceived neu­tral­ity of those in­volved in the pro­cesses of record­ing and nar­rat­ing his­tory, and, in do­ing so, al­lows us to cri­tique it. But she is also ea­gerly seek­ing al­ter­na­tives and mak­ing a case for ‘al­ter-Na­tive,’ to bor­row the schol­arly term, ways of record­ing and re­cod­ing the past.”

The se­ri­ous in­tent be­hind the record that emerges is one that ques­tions the no­tion of fixed his­to­ries. “This work is as much — if not more — a com­men­tary on the chal­lenges of ar­chiv­ing such his­to­ries as it is about the his­tory it­self,” Sauer said. One of the big­gest of those chal­lenges is break­ing free from the very forms that his­to­ri­ans im­pose on their sub­jects. “In the West, we are sad­dled with in­ter­pre­ta­tions of his­tory that are si­phoned through lenses that de­vel­oped in the Vic­to­rian era to be­come what we know to­day as the fields of ar­chae­ol­ogy, an­thro­pol­ogy, and con­tem­po­rary mu­seum stud­ies,” she said. “Our pop­u­lar cul­ture el­e­vates th­ese Western sci­ences as ab­so­lute fact, with­out much con­sid­er­a­tion of their long his­to­ries of im­plicit cul­tural bias and lim­i­ta­tions.” One ex­am­ple, from the book, is early RCAF car­tog­ra­phy. A chintzy dis­play of Pue­blo pot­tery knock­offs is iden­ti­fied as a col­lec­tion of wind move­ment charts. The styl­ized, lin­ear pat­terns on the pot­tery, rather than be­ing dis­cussed as Pue­bloan in na­ture, are in­ter­preted as di­a­grams that chart warm fronts and cold fronts.

“The mapped ves­sels not only al­lowed for the stor­age of spir­its, dried grains, and jerked meats, but acted as dis­creet means of car­ry­ing out topse­cret mis­sions,” she writes in the book. “This work def­i­nitely pokes fun at er­rors in the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal record that are grounded in ei­ther gross neg­li­gence or in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized racism,” she said. “I know the field it­self has come a long way since its in­cep­tion, but pub­lic per­cep­tions of the sci­ence as in­fal­li­ble and de­fin­i­tive have not yet caught up.”

Pre­sent­ing the RCAF as an ac­tual rebel branch of the U.S. Armed Forces brings some deeper themes into the nar­ra­tive. His­tor­i­cally, mi­nori­ties in the armed forces faced in­sti­tu­tional racism. Squadrons like the Tuskegee Air­men of World War II, a group of African-Amer­i­can pi­lots, only ex­isted be­cause of mil­i­tary seg­re­ga­tion. That the RCAF is not, in fact, an out­fit of the U.S. mil­i­tary but a col­lec­tive of artists, also hints at the in­sti­tu­tional racism of the art world, where dom­i­nant move­ments in Europe and Amer­ica (but not Latin Amer­ica or Na­tive Amer­ica) have been con­sid­ered the penul­ti­mate in artis­tic ex­pres­sion. To get their work seen, Chi­canos, Lati­nos, and His­pan­ics, not to men­tion other mi­nori­ties, still find them­selves ex­hibit­ing un­der their iden­ti­fy­ing la­bels. That such seg­re­ga­tion con­tin­ues to ex­ist can be seen in the way their art is dis­cussed from the point of view of the racial or eth­nic iden­tity of the maker — some­thing not done with white Amer­i­can and Euro­pean artists.

So Sauer’s book is not an ac­cu­rate his­tory of the RCAF, nor is it in­tended to be. But it is an ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion of her char­ac­ter La Stef’s at­tempt at such a his­tory. The au­thor is ea­ger to ad­mit the work is flawed. “I say ‘ea­ger’ be­cause I re­ally am ea­ger to see the gap­ing holes in RCAF doc­u­men­ta­tion filled in by the mem­bers them­selves, as well as by schol­ars, his­to­ri­ans, writ­ers, jour­nal­ists, film­mak­ers, and other artists,” she said. She cites scholar Rita González’s An Un­doc­u­mented His­tory: A Sur­vey of In­dex Ci­ta­tions for Latino and Latina Artists as a record of the gross omis­sion of Latina and Latino artists from the art his­tor­i­cal canon. “Why should it be ex­pected that we all know who Jackson Pol­lock even is, and not, say, José Montoya?” she asked. “I hope my book is just one of many, many more to come that doc­u­ment, re­con­sider, em­bel­lish, or are in­spired by the in­cred­i­ble and mul­ti­fac­eted legacy cre­ated by mem­bers of the Royal Chi­cano Air Force.”

“The Ac­ci­den­tal Archives of the Royal Chi­cano Air Force” by Stephanie Sauer is pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Texas Press.

Juanishi V. Orosco: Adobe Airplane, 2009, photo Jesse Ve­lasquez

Stephanie Sauer (La Stef ) in the cock­pit, cour­tesy Univer­sity of Texas Press

Sauer: Ev­i­dence bag #1: RCAF post­card feat. Gen­eral Con­fu­sion, 2009, post­card de­sign Rene Villa, photo Jesse Ve­lasquez

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